By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
After the Los Angeles Times published an expose detailing payments from MTA contractors to the event-planning company, Earnest's excursions into the agency's database came under intense scrutiny by higher-ups at the agency, who, Earnest believes, suspected her as a leak. Earnest's unit supervisor, Anthony Chavira, ordered her to cease her forays into the computer system, and initiated an administrative investigation against her. Says Earnest's attorney, former federal prosecutor Marvin Rudnick, "They were looking to cover up the investigation, plain and simple." Chavira did not return calls for comment.
In the face of the sanctions against Earnest, investigators at the inspector general's office took steps to protect their source. According to the claim Earnest filed against the MTA, investigator Daniel Carvin called Chavira on July 29 and informed him that Earnest was assisting an ongoing investigation, and told him he was drafting a memo to that effect. Nevertheless, two days later Earnest was suspended for a month and marched out of the MTA headquarters by security.
The sell-out of Amelia Earnest began several days later, when the acting deputy inspector, General Lloyd Bruce, told department investigators to sever any contacts with Earnest and refer all calls to him. "We were told to drop her - 'Don't ever talk to her again, take all her documents back to her supervisors,'" says one agent. "Lloyd Bruce said it was too much of a risk. He said we didn't want our heads to be out there."
The investigators were dismayed. "When it came time for us to say, 'Hey, this is wrong' and send a message that this kind of retaliation is not going to be tolerated, we should have done something," the source continues. "But our office is as politicized as any office in the MTA, and we let her twist in the wind."
Earnest was not aware that she had been deemed, in effect, persona non grata by the inspector general's office. At the time she was focused on getting the office to intervene with her supervisors, who had changed the password on her voice mail and were intercepting potentially sensitive messages - including messages from the reporters who occasionally badgered Earnest for information. She became suspicious when investigators who normally took her calls referred her to Lloyd Bruce, the number-two man in the office, and more so when Bruce finally called her back to deny her request. "He told me something to the effect of 'We are not going to get involved in a rift between you and your supervisors,'" Earnest says. "I was, like, wait a minute, what he's saying is 'You're on your own now.'"
Earnest didn't know the half of it. According to MTA records, while she was still on suspension, Earnest's top supervisor, the executive officer of the procurement department, Art Kimball, contacted Sinai directly in connection with Chavira's administrative investigation into her alleged leaks. There could have been no mistaking the intent of Kimball's inquiries: Earnest's supervisors were building a case against her, and they wanted to know whether the inspector general would protect her.
The upshot of Kimball's communication with Sinai became clear when Earnest returned from suspension a month later and was presented with a "Performance Improvement Plan." The document, which Earnest reluctantly signed, stated that her supervisors, Anthony Chavira and Art Kimball, had been "in contact with the inspector general's office" and that the "current understanding . . . is that you have not been asked to perform tasks in support of any I.G. investigation." Moreover, the plan, in apparent violation of MTA policy, ordered Earnest to seek prior approval from her supervisors before making any further contact with the inspector general's office.
In other words, the woman whom Sinai now hails a "whistleblower" had been cut off from any protection she might be afforded by such status. Sinai had given her supervisors a clear, if tacit, signal that she was fair game for whatever moves they might make against her.
Thus exposed to retaliation, Amelia Earnest's 11-year career at the MTA came to a swift and altogether predictable end. Upon her return from suspension, Earnest's position was transferred to a new "cost center" on the MTA's books, an entity consisting solely of Earnest's job. When the financially troubled agency initiated a round of layoffs a few weeks later, the new cost center was slated for elimination. Earnest was laid off on November 5, 1997. "Her position was no longer required by the department," says MTA attorney Cassandra Langdon. Despite her college degree and seniority, Earnest was one of only two employees laid off in the 257-person Procurement Department.
Art Sinai discussed the Earnest case over the course of two interviews, but in the end declined to comment on the details of her dismissal, other than to commend her work for the MTA. Sinai also refused to make his deputy, Lloyd Bruce, available for comment, or to permit interviews with any of his staff.
It seems unlikely that Sinai's investigation will expose his own department's culpability in the dismissal of Amelia Earnest. According to sources inside the inspector general's office, Sinai has ordered a very narrow probe, focusing on whether there was a legitimate basis for transferring Earnest's job to the new cost center, and whether her supervisors followed MTA policy in targeting her position for elimination.No matter. The probe should still make for some great press.